A push to establish one or more homeless shelters in southwest Riverside County has mushroomed as church and nonprofit leaders struggle to meet a growing need for services amid city conditions and resident concerns.
“We’re not trying so much to prod as to raise awareness,” John Wells, pastor of Mountain View Community Church in Temecula, said in a Monday telephone interview. His church provided temporary housing to 12 single men and two single women during pounding rains last weekend.
“There are many entities that are working together on this,” he said. “We’re collectively working together to not only raise awareness, but address the issue.”
The steps taken by the Rancho California Road church marked a broadening of efforts in the wake of a Murrieta decision to restrict the intake of a fledgling shelter there to homeless families.
On Feb. 2, the Murrieta City Council began paving the way for the establishment of one or more church-sponsored homeless shelters as long as site and operating plans are submitted and various conditions are met.
That nearly four-hour council session featured repeated council motions and wavering direction as to whether the shelter that Grace of Temecula Valley opened in Murrieta without permits could accept single men and women.
At one point in the long discussion, city staff was told that any shelter providers must state in their permit applications whether they would accept families or singles.
“It was really confusing,” said Wells, a Murrieta resident who attended the Feb. 2 council meeting. “It was disappointing, to be honest with you.”
It became clear afterward that the Grace shelter would be allowed to accept homeless families only, a move Wells described as “disingenuous.” That action prompted Mountain View to temporarily house the single men and women last weekend.
Mountain View set up cots for the men in the church’s community center, which usually acts as a smaller sanctuary and an area for youth activities. The two women slept in one of the adjacent classrooms. Several hopefuls were turned away after they were given meals at the church.
Congregation members from local churches that included Grace, Southwest Christian, Revival Christian Fellowship and Calvary Chapel staffed the shelter in six-hour-long shifts along with Mountain View volunteers.
That temporary arrangement ended when the skies cleared Monday. But shelter might be provided again if circumstances warrant, said Wells and other leaders.
Wells said he recognizes that his church lacks the permits and finances needed to operate a homeless shelter. But the church’s role in society and the community provides a certain leeway when such crucial needs are not addressed in the region, he said.
“We’re a church,” he said. “You can’t stop someone from housing people overnight in a house of worship.”
The lack of a homeless shelter in a vast swath outside the periphery of such facilities in the Hemet, Riverside, Corona and Moreno Valley areas prompted a loose-knit coalition of volunteers and religious leaders to open a facility at Grace on Jan. 17.
Anne Unmacht, president and founder of the nonprofit group Project Touch, helped spearhead the issue and has spoken out in a string of meetings.
In response, the Murrieta council on Feb. 2 established a framework for Grace or other churches to operate one or more shelters through March 31 if the operators submit plans that detail how they will function and what target groups they plan to serve.
The shelter issue and Mountain View’s recent actions also surfaced during Tuesday night’s Temecula City Council meeting.
Three residents cited concerns and asked questions, which prompted a response from city staff and brief council remarks.
When questioned by council members, Patrick Richardson, city director of planning and redevelopment, said Temecula had become involved in the issue. He said city building department officials had met with Project Touch and Mountain View representatives.
He said it was initially thought that Mountain View might open an emergency shelter again last Tuesday night due to heavy rains. That was not the case, however, as an emergency shelter was not opened, Calvin McCargo, the church’s homeless outreach coordinator, said in a Wednesday morning telephone interview.
Richardson said the church’s zoning designation allows it to provide emergency shelter, but city officials have asked its representatives to ensure that its facility has sufficient bathrooms, handicapped access and other amenities to meet such a need.
But the Mountain View’s existing approvals do not permit the church to operate a shelter on a regular basis, he said.
The council could not delve into the issue at length because it was not scheduled for discussion by the council during Tuesday’s meeting. The panel did not give Richardson any direction as to any course the city might follow on the shelter issue.
“This is not a discretionary act of the council as long as they comply,” Mayor Jeff Comerchero said as the brief review wound down.